Ageing of a microscopic sliding gold contact at low temperatures
Nanometer-scale friction measurements on a Au(111) surface have been performed at temperatures between 30 and 300 K by means of atomic force microscopy. Stable stick slip with atomic periodicity is observed at all temperatures, showing only weak dependence on temperature between 300 and 170 K. Below 170 K, friction increases with time and a distortion of the stick-slip characteristic is observed. Low friction and periodic stick slip can be reestablished by pulling the tip out of contact and subsequently restoring the contact. A comparison with molecular dynamics simulations indicates that plastic deformation within a growing gold junction leads to the observed frictional behavior at low temperatures. The regular stick slip with atomic periodicity observed at room temperature is the result of a dynamic equilibrium shape of the contact, as microscopic wear damage is observed to heal in the sliding contact.